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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Monday, April 26, 2004


A taxi ride through Caracas, Venezuela, will show you an expansive system of highways, numerous high-rises spread over miles of metropolitan jungle, streets teeming with merchants, parks filled with Simon Bolivar and running children, "Hugo Chavez is the people" banners, and numerous games of dominos taking place at every corner and with players of all ages. It is an impressive city, showing a level of infrastructure and construction unlike that of any other city we have visited -- this is an oil-rich nation. And yet a very real image of physical decline plagues its corners and avenues, the streets are the unsafest to walk that we have yet encountered, and there is a tension in the air of an immensely diverse people that live day to day in the political and economic uncertainty of its present and future. As one professor put it, "oil has been our wealth, as well as our misery."

Our first days in Caracas were stifled in terms of research due to the complete paralisis caused by Holy Week. Everything closes, from schools to universities to government offices to businesses. A significant part of our work that week came from numerous interviews with one of the most salient characteristics of Caracas: the thousands of street merchants, selling everything from bathing suits to calculators to police badges, that populate its every street. Stepping into any downtown street meant navigating through a tumult of vendors as enterprising as any capitalist I have ever heard (except perhaps with less capital). These people did not need permits, and had on their own achieved numerous extralegal arrangements for mutual protection, sidewalk rental, hours of operation, prices, and cooperation. They all had their wholesalers, they all had their methods of distribution, some were owners and others merely employers. Some were children of 17 with their own children to feed, others old rural farmers who could not sell enough coffee anymore. All of them sold their goods in the so-called informal sector, the extralegal sector, a significantly large sector (anywhere from 50 to 80% of the laboring population) in Latin America and in much of the so-called third world, a sector that awaits for the law to acknowledge its existence and permit its full development. We walked the streets from shop to shop, asking if they believed they were doing better than their parents, and if their children would do better than them. The answer to the first question was usually no, and to the second, varied from "of course," to "probably not," to "God, I hope so."

And then there was Hugo Chavez, a man not only who's speeches occupied hours and hours of each day's television programming (and who had his own show, "Hello Mr. President"), but who's military, along with their uzis, shotguns, and tanks, occupied most of the streets of Caracas. This man, carrying out a Bolivarian Revolution in the name of equality and justice, telling stories of Bolivar and quoting Alexander the Great, presented a neverending paradox. On one hand, we saw the grueling work of a government to build accessible universities, equitable schools, and advanced health centers in the (quite literally) mountains of poverty found all throughout Caracas, where homes are stacked one on top of another on the sides of hills with no apparent order; on the other hand, we saw an increasingly fascist state being born under a man who ten years ago attempted to violently take control of the government, as he reorganized and centralized the government power under one authority: him (or "the people"). And what do "the people" think? Many hate him, many love him, and even more just want to live their lives.

And yes, we were held and questioned by his military for approximately an hour. Apparently, asking to board a cargo ship headed for Panama is illegal, being there without a passaport is not problematic, and having "Hossein" as a middle name is just bad luck.

The last thing worth noting about Venezuela are, of course, the Venezuelans. They are a people that truly make up what some have called the "cosmic race": a beautiful mix of white, brown, and black that practically erases the boundaries of race. When we asked if there were any problems with racism or discrimination, we were told "we dont even really know who is of what color."

And with Venezuela ended our days on the South American continent. We now head for Costa Rica (by plane and not by cargo ship), one of the greatest success stories of Central America and all of Latin America.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Checking in from Peru

Our days in Peru began with the cab, truck, bus, and train we had to take to reach the heights of Machu Picchu. From the city of Cusco, once capital of the Inca Empire, and now little more than a few monuments of a magestic past and a sad people that sell their lives to tourists, we headed to Aguas Calientes, the city from which you ascend by either foot or bus to Machu Picchu. This is a city wrapped in mystery and greatness built, quite literally, on top of the sky. Nestled on the slopes of the Andes Mountains, rising over 8000 feet above the sea, built solely with rock on top of rock on top of cloud, with temples to the sun and moon and earth, with houses, theaters, and roads, and with thin paths that ascend, descend, and criss-cross interminable chains of mountains -- this was Machu Picchu.

After spending a day breathing in some of the purest air I have ever tasted, we prepared to head back by train. Upon reaching the Aguas Calientes train station at 5:45AM, we were informed that, due to heavy rains, approximately 6 kilometers of railways were under either water or rocks. Hence, there was no leaving Augas Calientes by train, and since no roads reach it, not by vehicle either. Walking back five or six hours to the nearest town with access to roads was suggested, yet no one knew exactly in which direction. The train station people then announced to the 700 or so tourists trapped in Aguas Calientes, that there would be no train for four days, and that about 150 people would be able to leave the town by helicopter. Only one helicopter was found in all of Peru to come rescue us, and then began the frantic battle to decide who got on, and who stayed behind.

We managed to get into the sixth group of people they organized to leave by helicopter, and since I made the list with the names of the people in our group, we were numbers one and two, and therefore sure to get on if they could actually take 6 groups (the helicopter could take between 22 and 25 people -- nobody was really sure which it was). At around 5PM that same day, after hopes for departing were vanishing and the sun was leaving us, we were informed that one last flight would be made -- and sure enough, Amir and I were first on that list. And so we ran to board a helicopter in the middle of Inca land, which took us on a thirty minute flight through the Andes all the way back to Cusco, giving us the chance to admire from the sky the centuries? old towns and ruins that yet remain in Peru, and leaving behind an angry mob of about 500 tourists.

Lima was not as exciting, nor as clean. Perhaps the most note-worthy -- and telling -- event was a ceremony in the middle of downtown. It consisted of a midnight procession of a few hundred people, marching to the beats of loud and melancholy trumpets, with two groups of around thirty small, dark, Peruvian men carrying on their hunched backs two large, heavy platforms, one with the Virgen de Dolores and the other with Jesus, all decorated in gold and silver, with pale faces and purple robes, shining from their heights upon the darker people below. And in the midst of this, I saw a boy, of about 6 years of age, wandering aimlessly throughout, with his dark eyes reflecting the shine of the Virgin, with no shoes on his feet and barely any clothes on his back. And he wandered away, lost in the crowd. This was the beginning of Holy Week.

After five days in Lima, we headed out by plane, and our flight to Venzuela had a five hour stop in Bogota, Colombia -- a calm, relaxed city that is the cross of a colonial town and an industrialized city. My next news will be from Caracas, Venezuela, home of four Miss Universes, five Miss Worlds, and Hugo Chavez.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Attending the UN Commission on Human Rights

Geneva is stunning. Green parks, trees, flowers everywhere. Clean, wide roads, buses that run on electricity, an extensive metro system. Sparkling blue lake with the magnificent Jette d’eau spraying into the air; in the distance Mont Blanc draped in fog. The population is young, dynamic, and their energy is reflected in the clean, contemporary art exhibits, in the modern plays, in the laughter on the lake front, in the clip of heels against the sidewalk—a city not afraid of living.

Le Palais des Nations is amazing. From the moment I opened the door and stepped inside, my heart began to quicken. All around me were tables loaded with documents and leaflets and booklets recording violations of international human rights, describing measures being taken to rectify the situations of atrocity, calling for help. All around me were women and men of all languages, of all skin colors, of all backgrounds—all with that clip to their step, with that set to their jaw, with that light in their eye that says they are moving forward, accomplishing something bigger than themselves. All around me were rooms of discussion, briefings on issues that bare upon people’s lives today. I could not read fast enough, could not move quick enough—there was too much that I wanted to engulf at once; and my heart beat faster. I was so hungry for all that was happening around me that it was 8pm before I remembered to eat lunch.

In the plenary sessions, member states generally just deliver five minutes of good political rhetoric. They all say about the same thing, from China to the Ukraine to Chili. They believe in the necessity for the active observation of international human rights standards, and their country is of course seeking to realize these rights….Although the NGOs have only three minutes to speak, their speeches tend to be more varied, perhaps a little less political show. But I still see little purpose in a three-minute speech. It is in the assembly room and in the briefing rooms that I find the real hope that this Commission represents: Draft resolutions on the rights of the child and on arbitrary detention, open forums on the prevention of violence against women, a special European Islamic Conference on Human Rights and the Muslim Woman… The discussions are endless, they are stimulating, and above all, they are hope-infusing.